What We Want You to Know About Mothering Small Children in a Pandemic

On Parenting: Reflections from Emily Raboteau and Emily Schiffer on The Longest Year: 2020+

The Longest Year: 2020+ is a collection of visual and written essays on 2020, a pivotal year that shifted our way of experiencing the world. In most publications, images work in service to words—here they work in tandem.   //   In part three of the series, Emily Raboteau and Emily Schiffer reflect on this long year of pandemic parenting, in text and photographs.

There were headlines about America failing us, the mothers. It was said we’d been set up for failure. That society let us down. Many of us were working full time while doing the bulk of the housework plus managing your remote learning under lockdown. Working moms were “not okay.” We were burnt out, in despair. We had no childcare. No support from school, from daycare, from camp, which in the best of times, most of us had struggled to afford, because we were underpaid.

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We wanted, above all, to keep you safe. You needed us. Little ones. Sweethearts. Every five minutes you needed us. To brush your hair. To make hot cocoa. To kiss your elbow. To resolve your bickering, your tantrum, to change your diaper, to admire your drawing and draw your bath, to witness your dance, your growth, to help you with math, to say it would be okay like we meant it when we had no earthly idea.

Your needs were astonishing. We fretted over our fitness to fill the gaps in your education. We worried about your development, the effects on your brain of social isolation and so much screen time. We were your God and also your slave. We made your birthday as magical as possible under the circumstances. Your smile was the measure of our success.

Our employers did not consider these factors when we underperformed. After we put you to bed, we kept working. We lost sleep. We swallowed our anger. We did the laundry, again. We researched getting you a puppy, knowing we’d be the one to scoop up the poop. For weeks, we forgot to wash our own hair. It was said our brains were damaged. There was nowhere to hide from you, from the repetition of days. Unmasked, we unraveled. We ran out of power and blew up. At times, we resented our partners. We didn’t ask our mothers for help because we feared infecting them. The stress was unmanageable, ghastly. We aged. Our dark thoughts frightened us. If we died, your life would fall apart. In secret, we wept.

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You mattered more to us than ourselves. We held you close. Some of us recalibrated our worth; were forced to do so by factors beyond our control. Some of us lost or left our jobs. We traveled nowhere but deeper into your gaze. We knew, to your story, we mattered. Your love was astonishing. Little ones! Sweethearts! The searchlights of your clear eyes were turned on us.

You made the shelter we couldn’t escape into a magical kingdom. We played with you down on the floor, our mood overtaken by your delight. Dollhouse. Puzzle. Picture book. You lined up all the animals and toy cars. Occasionally, you were kind to your siblings. Your grammar grew. You drew an equation you said was the cure. Your inventions amazed us. We held you close. It has always been so, no matter how dismal: children will find a way to play. You dilated our contracting world. I’m telling you. Wild thing, you dissolved the walls.

We taught you life skills. This is how you open a can and count money. This is how to read a clock and wash your hair. This is how to ride your bike and tie your shoes. This is how babies are made and how we bake a chocolate cake. This is the art of protest, how we make a sign that won’t blow away in the wind. We let you skip school to check on the neighbors. We answered your hard questions as best we could. Even the ones about the afterlife and the end of the world. We cuddled you on the couch.

At bedtime we performed the rituals that went with tucking you in. We read you the books that were read to us when we were small. We smelled your heads when you slept. We inhaled you like oxygen. In the glow of the nightlight, we watched you breathe and suck your thumb. We traded the tiny teeth you lost with shiny coins beneath the pillow.

Looking back, we’ll recall your sticky small hands on our cheeks, how you loved us more than anything, more than a thousand infinities, though you may not remember—in the dark days you made our bellies hurt with laughter.

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–Emily Raboteau

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Photos and text below by Emily Schiffer

April 1, 2020: Lola is willing to do a school worksheet if I sit in her fort.

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April 2, 2020: After bickering over schoolwork neither of us wants to do, Lola releases pent up energy. Ambulance sirens blare outside. They have been non-stop for weeks. I am grappling with the instability and anxiety these days hold, and decide in this moment to forgo phonics and math in favor of just about anything that sparks joy.

April 27, 2020: One more day in the living room. I attempt to include myself in these photographs. Another day is passing and Thierry and I urgently need to work.

October 31, 2020: After a long evening of trick or treating on our block, the kids warm themselves at Sam and Micaela’s outdoor heater. The adults look on and sip wine.

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April 7, 2020: The children amuse themselves while Thierry does the dishes. I drink coffee and think about the social impact of the virus flattening people physically, emotionally, financially.

May 5, 2020: When I was little my grandmother would lay me across her kitchen counter to wash my hair. It was special. Today we need special. I clear off the counter, and it works. Lola says sink-washes turn her hair into a waterfall.

July 5, 2020: Having always known he wanted to be a father, Thierry’s parenthood is filled with a lifetime of anticipation. His calm and gentle demeanor has kept our family rooted through the uncertainty of this time. But the threat of the virus also awakened us to how easily life can unravel. Protective of our inner world, we take fewer risks than our friends and neighbors. We are getting used to disappointing them.

March 12, 2021: Lola’s questions often surface at bedtime. She wants to know why. Why do people hate? How and when did racism start? Did it start with one person? How did it spread? Did anyone at the beginning try to stop it? Why couldn’t they stop it? Why? I answer honestly. She is a child, so I follow her lead—allowing her to interrupt with thoughts about slime or plans to build a birdhouse with the recycling. She asks if we are safe, if interracial marriage could become illegal again, and whether we have a plan if it does. Shortly after George Floyd’s murder, Lola and her best friend decided to “do an NPR piece” asking adults about racism. They want so badly to understand. When they hit the block with their recorders, they found adults as hungry as they are for answers.

July 9, 2020: Julian is one today and we’re celebrating fiercely with a unicorn pool and bubbles. Léa, Régine and Kyra join us via FaceTime and my phone ends up waterlogged.

May 14, 2020: Lola’s best friend Léa, who lives down the block, turned nine today. Today I also learned that my 96-year-old grandfather passed away from Covid-19 complications. Léa has been giving Lola piano lessons via Zoom, so we brought the keyboard to Léa’s stoop and Lola gave a birthday performance. The girls’ sweetness and resilience strike me particularly hard today as I navigate the grief and anger of my grandfather’s loss.

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The Longest Year: 2020+ is a collection of visual and written essays on 2020, a pivotal year that shifted our way of experiencing the world. Edited by Rachel Cobb, Alice Gabriner, and Elizabeth Krist.

Rachel Cobb is a photographer who lives in New York City. She has worked for numerous publications including The New York Times, TIME and Rolling Stone magazine. Her award-winning book Mistral: The Legendary Wind of Provence was published by Damiani in 2018. More of her work can be found here.

Alice Gabriner is a visual editor, instructor and mentor with 30 years of experience at publications, including The New Yorker, The New York Times, National Geographic, and TIME.  For the first two years of the Obama administration, she served as Deputy Director of Photography.

A National Geographic photo editor for over 20 years, Elizabeth Krist is on the boards of Women Photograph and of the W. Eugene Smith Fund, helps program National Geographic’s Storytellers Summit, and advises the Eddie Adams Workshop. She curated A Mother’s Eye for Photoville and CatchLight, and the Women of Vision exhibition and book.

Emily Raboteau and Emily Schiffer
Emily Raboteau and Emily Schiffer
Emily Raboteau is a novelist and essayist interested in the intersection between parenting, environmental justice, public art, and social change. She is a contributing editor at Orion Magazine and a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books. The recipient of an American Book Award and grants from the NEA and NYFA, her next book is Caution: Lessons in Survival, forthcoming from Holt. Emily is the Stuart Z. Katz Professor of Humanities and Arts at the City College of New York, in Harlem.

Emily Schiffer is a photographer and mixed media artist interested in the intersection between art, community engagement, and social change. She is a co-founder and creative director of We, Women, the largest social impact photography project by women and gendernonconforming artists in the United States. The recipient of numerous awards and grants, she exhibits and publishes her work internationally. Emily is on the faculty at the School of Visual Arts and the International Center of Photography.





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